A Material Change: American Graded Stakes Inconsistency

(Guest Post)

This spring, the American Graded Stakes Committee decided that because Colonial Downs' Colonial Turf Cup would be opened to older runners, after having been for 3-year-olds only previously, it would be stripped of its grade II status. The committee judged that this was a "material change and therefore the committee considers the race a new race for grading purposes."  This is in accordance with the Committee's well-known standards for awarding grading to races and should not have surprised the management of Colonial Downs.

Except that in the past the committee has let this requirement go by the boards many times by allowing races that have undergone significant changes to retain their grading.

Exhibit 1: The Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. This race was first run as the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap in 1986; it was at that time at 1 1/6 miles. The race did not earn graded status until its fifth running, when it became a grade III race. The very next year, 1991, Gulfstream management stretched the distance out to 1 3/8 miles; I don't know about you, but I consider a change from 8.5 furlongs to 11 furlongs to be a "material change" to the race, but the grading committee let it keep the grade "earned" by the shorter race. Fast forward to 2009. The 11-furlong Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap has done so good a job attracting top grass stayers that it has achieved a grade I ranking.  So what does management do? It lops a quarter mile off the distance and cards it at 1 1/8 miles. This is another material change, yet the race is still allowed to attain the rank it attained under very different circumstances. Only the name remained the same. Was the committee nodding?

Exhibit 2: The Gulfstream Park Handicap. This was once one of the great handicap races of the winter season; while Hialeah owned the coveted middle dates, it played second fiddle to the historic Widener, but that changed when Gulfstream secured that charmed meet. From 1975 to 2002, it maintained its grade I status; however, the emphasis that management put into building up its prep, the Donn Handicap at 9 furlongs, and the introduction of the Dubai World Cup began to erode its fields and it fell to grade II status. In 2005, management shaved half a furlong off the venerable contest, but this was not a large enough change to question retaining its grade. However in 2009, management shortened it again, changing it out of all recognition; the name of the top handicap of the winter season at 10 furlongs was now plastered on an extended sprint race--a one-turn mile. No protest resulted from the grading committee.

I don't want you to think that I am picking on Gulfstream Park, because the NYRA has been getting away with murder as well. I am particularly incensed about the fate of "The Fillies' Belmont," the Coaching Club American Oaks, which for most of the 20th century was regarded as the U.S.'s premier Oaks race. Not only did the management whittle away on its distance at various times, last year they decreed that a 10-furlong race at Belmont would become a 9-furlong race at an entirely different track, Saratoga, and that a historic classic race would become a prep race. IMHO, this is the most material of material changes, yet the grading committee never blinked an eye: the new race they stuck the CCA Oaks' name on still carries a grade I ranking.

The poor folks at Colonial Downs must wonder why the grading committee decided that the "material change" of this race was so much larger than the changes in these and other races. And we have to wonder why the committee seems unwilling or unable to apply its own rules on an equitable basis.

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